An estimated 10 million people in the UK are Deaf or have a hearing loss and this is rising. Captioning provides an important service for many Deaf theatre audiences, giving people access to the arts that they would not otherwise have.
For many Deaf people, particularly those who have become Deaf later in life or do not use British Sign Language as their first language, attending the theatre becomes frustrating and people are reluctant to continue to visit. Captioning can make theatre enjoyable again.
So, how does captioning work?
In the theatre, pre-prepared lines of the script are delivered live during the captioned performance. Usually, they are scrolled onto a screen, close to the stage, in line with actors’ spoken word. The character names are given when an actor’s line or speech begins, in this format – WILLIAM: and sounds may be given like this [ PHONE CHIRPS ] or [THUNDER CRASHES ]
A lot of work goes in to preparing a captioned show. Starting with the script, the captioner begins by stripping out all the unwanted text: stage directions, explanations, and visual cues. Then a visit to the show is needed to mark any changes to the script and to make a note of pauses and all the sounds which may not have been in the original script. This is particularly challenging with a new script which has yet to be brought to life on the stage; the script changes not only with almost every rehearsal but almost every performance!
The other challenge is punctuation. The spoken word is rarely used in complete sentences and pauses often occur in the middle of a sentence or phrase so the captioner has to balance how the actor phrases the words against how the words read on the screen.
The script is uploaded to the captioning software and is checked to make sure that it all makes sense.
Then, accompanied by a DVD of the performance provided by the theatre we rehearse extensively to ensure that the timing of the script is as close to that of the actors as possible.
Different captioning companies use different types of screens. The two most frequently used are LED screens and plasma screens: both offer clear captioning for their Deaf, deafened and hard of hearing audiences.
It is very important that the venue and their technicians understand how captioning works and place the screens in a space which enables the audience member to both read the captions and see the action.
Preferably, two screens are needed, one each side of the stage. This enables the audience member to read one screen, scan across the stage to read the other and back again. One screen makes this difficult unless it is placed in the centre.
Of course, the ideal position for a single screen is on the stage itself. Surprisingly, this does not seem to worry members of the general audience as much as designers and directors fear. Companies like Graeae do this with great effect, projecting the words onto the set as part of the total experience.
However it is done, we know that captioning is a vital part of any theatre’s access offer. As Peter Pullan, co-founder of StageText said in an interview in the Guardian:
“I speak as a person who suffered a severe hearing loss at the age of five. I found theatre impossible to hear and understand. Before captioning, I just went to a few musicals that I tentatively knew, but I gave up on drama. Now, with captions, I go to the theatre once a week and enjoy a wide range of shows; I feel enriched by the experience.”